High Desert Hangar Stories: Larry the Lawn Chair Pilot: Urban legend or true story?

By Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News

When it comes to us men, there is always a constant edge that is living with us just below the skin level.

More times than not it’s what can make us great, but it’s also why we can suffer some epic failures. Let’s face it, folks — comedian Tim Allen has made a boatload of money making us laugh at the way men are “wired,” sharing experiences and the love for extreme things and ideas that any sane man would know dang well would probably be better off left alone. We guys can all grunt in unison when we see the big and powerful or over-the-top experience succeed or go terribly wrong, and deep down inside, no matter the outcome, we would secretly say ‘heck, I could do that,’ or even worse, ‘if I’d done that, it wouldn’t have been a failure!’

With that being said, it’s time to meet one of those ‘alpha males’ who was not going to let all that testosterone and his childhood dreams of flight go to waste in a back yard, sucking down beers and watching games on the weekends. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s have a round of grunts for California’s own Larry the Lawn Chair Pilot — one of the most infamous pilots of all time!

Larry Walters always dreamed of flying and being a pilot. As a young boy he looked forward to the day when he would break the surly bonds of earth and maybe at least touch the top of the chimney at his home. Many times he set course, looking to fulfill his dreams of flight, but life and the military never ended up putting him in a position to soar with the eagles — or even the pigeons. Many times the skies called and one day the calling was too much for Larry to resist. A desperate plan was hatched in his back yard while sitting in his trusty Lawn Chair, more than likely finding inspiration in multiple cans of beer!

Forming his own San Pedro back yard into a Tasmanian Devil version of the Skunk Works, Larry hatched a plan and went about gathering the materials that would give him a front row seat to the Earth from a safe 30 feet above his house. Trips to the Army surplus store, the party supply store, the sporting goods store and, of course, the local market, Larry’s procurement process would put old Uncle Sam to shame. Even food coupons were used to purchase the necessities for a backyard cutting-edge aircraft program.

Larry and his chair, he gave it away to some neighborhood kids and he regretted it, as years later the Smithsonian came calling! Eventually it ended up in a museum! (Courtesy photograph)

The goal was simple: his trusty lawn chair would be his cockpit, weather balloons from the local Army-Navy store would be his wings, his power would come from the local party store with bottles of helium to wing him skyward, one gallon water bottles would be his controls to assist speed and altitude, and a trusty pellet gun would be the control for descent, with carefully aimed shots at the balloons to start the landing process. What could go wrong? He had thought of just about everything, and probably celebrated with the hiss of another can of beer opening and a chug-a-lug!

We all have a friend or two who is a little wild and crazy, and when we see those friends seek adventure or fame by embracing the insane, we’re more than willing to be a part of the experience and share the thrill. Larry’s friends and neighbors turned out en masse that fateful morning in 1982, as it looked like a perfect day to make a bit of history.

As Larry tied his “craft” to the bumper of his jeep and started to fill his balloons, he made a quick inventory of the supplies for his “Mission”: Seat belt — check; sandwiches — check; pellets for pellet gun — check; Radio Shack Air Band two-way walkie-talkie — check; beer in small ice chest check; and water-filled plastic bottles — check; binoculars and camera — check, aviator sunglasses — check, flight suit (well, really just a t-shirt and Levis with a windbreaker and boots) — check;  and last but not least, Larry — check!

Everything was ready to go and there wasn’t a bit of common sense in attendance at the launch facility (aka Larry’s back yard), or any friend willing to say ‘what the heck are you doing,’ and then tie him up until he came to his senses!

Chuck Yeager pitched wrist watches, Larry Walters pitched Sears Lawn Chairs! (Courtesy graphic)

After Larry had strapped in and a thumbs up was given, an out of sync countdown was started and somewhere between 5 and zero, the balloons were released, the rope detached from the Jeep and all hell broke loose, when Larry missed his target altitude of 30 feet and shot up to about 16,000 feet like he was a missile! We can only imagine what all his friends and neighbors were thinking as he kept getting smaller and smaller, they were probably wondering who was going to inherit his Jeep!

As Larry settled into his flight routine (Yeah-Right!) he discover he was so petrified that the idea of shooting the balloons was now out of the question. The reality was that he was now firmly in the control of Mother Nature and had no idea what to do next except sit there in his lawn chair at 16,000 feet and hope that his last confession would be enough to get him into heaven.

Cold, frightened and drifting for countless hours, Larry the Lawn Chair Pilot was getting really concerned. He was drifting into the flight corridor to Long Beach Airport and, off in the distance, LAX. Would he survive, or would the offshore winds have him drifting out over the Pacific Ocean, probably never to be heard from again?

When local airport radar stations started picking up this strange unidentified craft floating around the L.A. basin, a call was finally put out to any aircraft that could confirm the craft’s identity. Sure enough, an inbound flight reported a man in a lawn chair with a gun was hanging below some balloons at around 16,000 feet! I’m sure that West Coast air command was thinking long and hard about whether they wanted to scramble jets to intercept an armed man in a lawn chair!

Finally communication with the control tower at Long Beach was achieved, and I’m sure a very interesting and colorful back and forth dialog took place. A plan was hatched to have a helicopter drop Larry a line and tow him back to safety. I’m sure there was an opportunity for a Distinguished Flying Cross to be awarded to some pilot for his heroics, but what it might have said about the rescue would be questioned at every gathering of old bold pilots and probably better left alone!

A man that definitely left behind a lot of fans.  (Courtesy photograph)

The real ending was not quite as dramatic, but still made for a good story — after biting the bullet (or maybe biting the pellet), Larry worked up the nerve to shoot out a couple of his balloons. He eventually lost altitude and ended up breaking a power line in Long Beach on his way to a safe landing.

With lawn chair sores on his rear end, a cold and very tired Larry the Lawn Chair Pilot was finally lowered to good old Mother Earth and found, as he stepped on good old terra firma, that he had cemented himself as an urban legend. There was no shortage of TV new crews and newspaper men waiting to capture the story of the wayward pilot. There were also some other fine folks there to greet Larry, as the waiting members of the Long Beach Police Department arrested Larry for violating controlled airspace into and out of the local commercial airports!

Believe it or not, this is a true story and Larry Walters the Lawn Chair Pilot really happened. After Larry’s incredible adventure he became a novelty and a wanted speaker at community and social events — and really, who would not want to hear this story from the guy who lived it! After Larry’s fame died down, he spent some time as a volunteer with the U.S. Forest Service, working in the Angeles National Forest where he would care for and maintain hiking trails for the public. Gee, I wonder how he came to desire such down-to-earth profession!

Well there you have it, one of those stories that seems so improbable that most of you would say, ‘Come on Bob, stop pulling our leg. That could have never happened.’ But it did, and even though the story gets a bit fuzzy around the edges with time, the core is solid. As every boy or man can tell you, Larry the Lawn Chair Pilot was more than likely the very first guy who could out-grunt Tim Allen while being able to come up with the best excuse ever as to why he was late for dinner!

Until next time, Bob Out …

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